Even as third indictment looms, many Republicans still stand by Trump

Visitors to the Boone County Fair in Iowa vote with corn kernels during a public mock election on Saturday for Republican presidential candidates. (Jordan Gale for The Washington Post)

A weekend at an Iowa county fair underscores the persistent support for the former president regardless of his legal troubles

BOONE, Iowa — Vickie Farmer, 66, knows her presidential candidate of choice comes off as “abrasive, offensive and sometimes looks orange,” but she’s all-in for Donald Trump for a third time — especially in the face of what she sees as a never-ending legal witch hunt.

Randy Mitchell, 70, is tired of all the controversy surrounding Trump — he thinks the former president’s legal troubles are a farce — but he concedes that he will vote for him again if he’s the 2024 GOP nominee.

But Amy Rohe, who’s in her mid-40s, thinks the Republican Party — and the country — needs someone fresh with new ideas who isn’t pushing a personal agenda. She voted for Trump twice but doesn’t plan to support him again. Too much baggage, she says.

During a hot, sunny weekend at the Boone County Fair — where hundreds of Iowans came together to eat funnel cakes and corn dogs and to watch their children and grandchildren show off animals from their family farms — the range of Republican voters’ views on Trump, the undisputed front-runner in state and national polls, was on full display. Interviews with GOP voters in the rural county, which Trump carried by double-digit percentage points in 2016 and 2020, show that Trump continues to have a tight grip on the party, even among those who have grown weary of his rhetoric and legal troubles.

Even with the backdrop of Trump facing another potential indictment over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, many GOP voters wrote off the former president’s legal challenges as part of a continued liberal smear campaign and said it didn’t impact the image — positive or negative — they already have of him. Some, however, said they were tired of all the drama surrounding Trump and are increasingly open to other candidates as they look to 2024.

In a Fox Business survey of Iowa Republicans released Sunday, Trump continued to dominate the GOP primary field, garnering support from 46 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers and leading the field by 30 percent. The same poll found that Trump is seen as the candidate with the best chance of defeating President Biden.

Trump is facing two live indictments: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment accusing Trump of paying hush money to an adult-film actress before the 2016 election, and special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment in Florida in June accusing Trump of mishandling classified documents. Another potential indictment from Smith’s investigation could come as early as this week into Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, while an Atlanta-area district attorney is investigating efforts to overturn Trump’s electoral defeat in Georgia.

Mitchell, who has been involved with the Boone County Republican Central Committee for more than a decade, sat behind the local party’s booth in the air-conditioned vendor area on Saturday afternoon and handed out kernels of corn to fairgoers passing by for its informal poll. GOP voters were asked to drop their kernel in labeled jars for the primary candidate they plan to support.

The 70-year-old pointed to Trump’s jar — which clearly had more kernels than the rest — and said he had mixed feelings about the former president. He called Trump a “promise keeper” who “gets things done” and said he still has a hat that Trump autographed at a rally in 2016. But he said he wished Trump would stop picking fights with everyone.

“I’m worn out by all the controversy,” Mitchell said as he leaned on the table with fliers for GOP candidates including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence. “If he makes it through, I’ll probably … I just don’t know if I’ll support him in the caucus. I get tired of it.”

Mitchell said he’s curious to learn more about Ramaswamy and Scott but isn’t convinced about the hype around DeSantis, who remains a distant second in most polls. He said, however, that he thinks all of Trump’s recent legal troubles are part of a “witch hunt” that stem from him “poking the bear all the time.” Mitchell added that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “farce” and that the Justice Department was after Trump. He worries it will impact Trump’s chances of winning.

Just a few booths down, Farmer heard that the local GOP was handing out kernels for the corn poll and she made her way to the booth to drop one in Trump’s jar.

“He’s the only choice, in my opinion,” she said.

Farmer has been a Trump supporter from the start, but in the years since Biden came into office, her support for the former president has only grown. She said she’s most worried about the economy, because she sees her adult children living paycheck to paycheck and at times struggling to juggle food and gas costs.

“I was very happy with the way things were going. I don’t think he is guilty of nearly all of the things they’re accusing him of,” she said, sitting next to a table she set up with her husband to sell scented wax melts and other home goods. “I think there’s a smear campaign to try to keep him from getting into office.”

Farmer wouldn’t weigh in on the Jan. 6 insurrection but said she didn’t think the 2020 election was carried out “legally and fair.”

“If indeed he tried to overturn it, I don’t blame him,” Farmer said, adding that she would “absolutely” back Trump in the Iowa caucuses in January.

Many Boone County fairgoers, like Farmer, were supporting Trump. Dozens of kernels were in his jar at the GOP booth, while DeSantis and Scott were visibly in second and third place. Other candidates had no kernels or just a few. A day earlier, the final tally showed Trump with 54 kernels, DeSantis with 8 and Scott with 7.

Outside in the afternoon sun, sporting a “Let’s go Brandon” T-shirt, Rob Loew, 47, said he would be backing Trump again in the 2024 election even though he’s convinced that his vote doesn’t matter and elections are rigged.

He said he was convinced the indictments were all aimed to hinder Trump from picking up more momentum on the campaign trail.

“Trump might be very self-centered, but he’s not bought and paid for by the ‘deep state.’ They can’t buy him, and that’s why they want to get rid of him,” Loew said. “This new stuff they’re pulling out again about Jan. 6, they’re just doing to try to put him in a position that he can’t campaign as much and he’s going to be in and out of court.”

Roxanne and Harold Bickelhaupt, both 72, were less inclined to defend Trump, as they sat waiting for their grandchildren, who came to the fair to show off their family’s animals including goats, horses and rabbits. The couple, who have been married for 50 years, voted for Trump twice and will vote for him again if it’s a matchup between Biden and Trump, but they don’t necessarily like Trump as a person.

“I can’t say I like the guy, but I did like the way he ran the country,” Harold said as he sipped on a Gatorade and sat in the shade beside his wife. “I think he could’ve handled [Jan. 6] better than what he did. But until you’re in that situation, how do you know for sure how you’d handle it?”

His wife nodded. “They’re just kind of picking on him. Yeah, I’m sure some of what’s being said he’s probably done. But all of our presidents have got something.”

Meanwhile, Rohe is less invested in whether Trump is innocent or guilty of trying to overturn the election or inciting the insurrection on Jan. 6. She wants the country to move on. Instead, she’s more concerned about the safety of the country and of her 11-year-old son Tommy.

“We don’t need to continue to rehash all this stuff,” she said after her son participated in a dog obstacle-course competition with his 2-year-old dog Lucy. “It’s slowing us down from progressing and moving forward like America does. I hope there’s somebody fresh on both sides for us to have good luck to move forward. Because there’s a lot of baggage all around.”

So far, Rohe is a fan of the national security-focused message she’s heard from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and wishes South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem was running in the primary, but she’s not committed to supporting anyone yet. She does, however, know she doesn’t want Trump again.

“I feel like he’s just gone off the deep end,” she said. “And we need somebody who wants to represent us as a whole and not just themselves.”

Carl McKnight, 72, blocked the summer sun at the fair with a red bucket hat that read “Trump won.” McKnight remains a loyal Trump supporter and doesn’t think “we should gamble on somebody else.”

He said he understands that some people are turned off by Trump’s personality and all the negative headlines around him, but he personally doesn’t think Trump has “ever made a wrong decision” and feels he’s a “winner who bounces back.” He’s already had conversations with several GOP voters in his community to urge them to support Trump even if they don’t like him because he can keep the country out of war and get the economy back on track.

On Trump’s legal battles, he feels people should give him the benefit of the doubt. But it does keep McKnight up at night to see indictments piling up for Trump — not because it’s affecting his support but because he worries it’s having an impact on other supporters.

“Nobody wants to waste their vote if they think you can’t win,” McKnight said.

In New Hampshire, a similar picture emerged in conversations with GOP voters attending events for Pence. Several said the indictments against Trump were not a significant factor in their thinking about the upcoming primary. Even those who are open to supporting an alternative candidate did not cite the indictments as a reason, and several viewed it as an example of a weaponized Justice Department.

“The whole thing is very, very tragic for our country,” said Brenda Dolan, 74, a registered Republican in Florida, who attended a garden party for Pence in New Hampshire and is undecided. “There may have been wrongdoing, but it reeks of election interference, unfortunately. The timing is bad. Everything is bad about it. … It’s a terrible distraction, it’s a distraction for the country, it’s a distraction for him. My heart breaks for his family.”

Warren Ignacio, a Republican voter in Massachusetts who plans to support Pence, described the Trump indictments as “humiliating to the country, to the American people. These committees coming up with false or making up things, making up different rules, just to affect this election and just for one guy. Because he’s not liked. He’s not liked because he did good.”

Other voters said that they were waiting for more information about the indictments.

Reggie Pettitt, another New Hampshire Republican who attended the Pence town hall and is open to supporting Trump again, said he has “some significant questions with regard to the timing of things.”

When asked whether the indictments factor into his candidate choice, Pettitt said, “I wouldn’t disregard that, I wouldn’t ignore that.”

“If something surfaces evidentiary in one of those, or multiple pieces of evidence, that could sway me to a position where I’m considering it more heavily,” he said.

Marianne LeVine in New Hampshire contributed to this report.

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